26 November 2012

Sasquatch DNA?

On Sunday night, I spotted an article in Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed: A lab claiming that it has sequenced DNA from Sasquatch.

Well. That would be interesting, if it were true.

It’s not just the subject matter of the press release that is strange, though. There’s the little fact that it’s for a paper that is in review, not one that has been published. Usually, papers in review don’t get press releases, because goodness knows Reviewer Number 2 has taken a lot of manuscripts out of contention and they never see the light of day.

In fact, I have to admit: I am so pulling for Reviewer Number 2 to take this manuscript down. Preferably with sniper-style precision and finality. As Adam Goldstein indicated on Twitter, this is something that most journal editors would not even send out for review.

A quick search on Google Scholar revealed one article on animal DNA co-authored by the researcher mentioned in the press release, Melba Ketchum: Recommendations on animal DNA forensic and identity testing. This morning, I’ve found another: A low-cost, high-throughput, automated single nucleotide polymorphism assay for forensic human DNA applications.

That Ketchum is a published author on DNA techniques makes me think this is not a hoax. And I’ve smelled sasquatch hoaxes before (see related posts at bottom). This feels much more like... overly enthusiastic interpretation, if I’m being charitable about it.

More details emerged this morning courtesy of @mem_somerville.

The source of the DNA appears to have been from a woman in Michigan who claims to feed blueberry muffins and bagels to Sasquatches on her property. The researcher, Melba Ketchum, also appears to claim to have DNA from angels. This longer article has more details.

I would love some other science blogger to do a post on, “If this were true, this is what the DNA would be like, and these are the reasons someone could get mislead.” On the latter, I can say: I lived through the rush to find dinosaur-era DNA back in the 1990s. There were a lot of papers published in Glamour Mags claiming to have DNA tens of millions of years old. It didn’t replicate. Lots of cases of contamination. This taught me that DNA is much trickier to work with than you might think.

I think Neil himself has a good summary of this story so far:

I do not care if this is true or not. It makes the world a cooler place & it delights me(.)

While I am extremely skeptical of the results scientifically, this is shaping up to be one fascinating glimpse into fringe science.

Update: Apparently, this story has been bubbling in the sasquatch community for some time now. This post is interesting, is that it looks at the business that Melba Ketchum is in. The Better Business Bureau has several complaints lodged against her business for failing to deliver results.

More updates: Back in January, Melba Ketchum applied for copyright for media around “The Sasquatch Project.” (Hat tip to The OpenHelix Blog.) This is not surprising, as we have often seen people with sexy scientific projects try to make money with documentaries (e.g., the documentary on Darwinius).

Another report from back in January motes Ketchum says she has seen Sasquatch personally.

Update, 27 November 2012: I don’t like either of these two news stories. This one is two credulous (“actually proves the existence of Sasquatch”). This one is too mocking (“Like OMG!”). Hat tip to Leonid Kruglyak for spotting both.

Update, 28 November:  Corrections and additional information from Robert Lindsay in the comments.

A attention-grabbing headline:

Boffin claims Bigfoot DNA reveals BESTIAL BONKING

...at odds with a nuanced final paragraph:

El Reg awaits it with interest. While it's easy to chortle at such stories, the scientific method demands that disbelief be suspended until peers have reviews and retested. Maybe it is possible that someone had the one-night stand from hell and we ended up with a near relative – but great claims demand great evidence.

Update, 29 November: Here’s an article from someone else who was responsible for testing sasquatch DNA back in 2005, which I blogged about at the time.

(W)hat exactly might Ketchum have sequenced? Coltman doesn’t know for sure, but he said that it’s easy to pick up human mitochondrial DNA because of contamination, and that the nuclear DNA could represent environmental noise, more contamination of yeast, fungi, or other microorganisms–very common occurrences with any forensic sample. “There are big piles of DNA sequence that come out of any environmental sample that don’t line up to anything,” he said.

Update, 1 December: Here’s an interview with Dr. Ketchum on Houston television.

Related posts

Another cryptozoology disappointment
Smell the popcorn, carny’s coming to town
Hype, hoax, or hope?
More sasquatch honesty than expected
ABout where I expected we’d end up with sasquatch


Anonymous said...
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Mark said...

It's not really strange - the timing, I mean. Some information already leaked by some dude named Igor. He was angry that it was taking so long. She, kind of, had to respond, given the circumstances.

Anonymous said...
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I Doubt It said...

Over at Doubtfulnews.com, we take these dubious stories from the fringes and put them under a skeptical lens.

I have a lot on the history of this story and various other Bigfoot claims that have come around.

There is a LONG and SORDID history to Dr. Ketchum's study and its various partipants, promises and secrecy. I'm working on chronicling it for publication in a skeptical outlet.

Mark said...

You pseudoskeptics have issues. You can't just sit back and wait for the paper to come out, can you. You just have to be disparaging. You people should try to find something constructive to do with your lives, rather than just trying to tear down everybody who is researching claims that you do not like.

Chin-Lee said...

I Doubt It is a professional doubter. Bring her anything, her job is to doubt it.

A professional Doubting Thomasina.

She should remember the Chinese proverb:

The person who says something can't be done, shouldn't interrupt the person doing it.

Really, all professional doubters should be taught that proverb.

It wouldn't hurt to review the parable of Doubting Thomas, either.

Mark said...

Interesting. I thought that was a George Bernard Shaw saying. Maybe he stole it from the Chinese people.

Robert Lindsay said...

Hello, it is not true at all that Robin Lynne is a source of any of the DNA. Instead the DNA is from a wide of sources all over the US and Canada. It is not just from hair. There is blood, saliva and actually tissue from a dead Bigfoot that was used.

The article appears to have failed peer review here in the US, is the best I can guess. It was probably at Nature from Feb 2011-Sep 2011, so the author is wrong that no journal editor would even send this out for review. It appears that Henry Gee himself did just that. The paper was handed back with "no testable hypothesis" and "no zoologist on board."

From Sep 2011 until present it has been at one or more journals. It was handed back for four major rewrites and endless minor ones. It either failed in the end or Melba just got tired of waiting for Godot to publish the paper. She's taking it to Russia and it will be published in a Russian scientific journal. It's apparently been in review there and it looks like it will pass review. The topic is too hot and full of ridicule so it looks like no US journal will touch it for fear of reputation damage or humiliation.

There is no good hard evidence that Robin Lynne has any Bigfoots on her property. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't,who knows.

Melba is not trying to make money off any documentary. That project is shelved.

Frank B. said...

'I Doubt It' here accuses the Ketchum study of sordidness.

From her page, 'Why I give up on Bigfoot sites and forums':

#12 by Brian Dunning on April 3, 2012 - 12:49 pm

"You’re going to stop visiting Bigfoot forums? I’ll believe it when I see it (like Bigfoot)."

#13 by idoubtit on April 3, 2012 - 7:14 pm


BFF just added “premium memberships” today.

That site is pathetic."

Two posts later, I Doubt It commented:

#18 by idoubtit on April 7, 2012 - 8:22 am

"[ . . . ]

I don’t like that you treat us like we don’t know what we are talking about. So, I am not posting your comments. Please be more cautious during public discussions here, I try to keep it at a civil level. Thank you."

I don't understand how "F[edited]" in block capitals demonstrates 'a civil level.' She's a geologist. You wouldn't expect that kind of language usage from someone highly educated.

Reading through some of her material, she seems to not understand that Atheism is a belief system, that evolutionary theory is a theory, and so requires belief.

In her comments she has been dismissive of amateur investigators. Amateurs can do perfectly good work. As much as 90% of astronomical discoveries are made by back garden amateurs with telescopes.

A problem with professional skeptics is bias. If 'the unexplained' occurred to them personally, privately, because of bias, it's likely they would discount it, and not reveal to anyone that it had happened.

Some science types treat science as Science--a religion. While they attack various religious people for their beliefs, they themselves are marching into universities and laboratories, which are institutions, like churches, with practices and theories which require belief and faith.

Why be an extremist in either direction? With a name such as I Doubt It and a site, Doubtful News, you are advertising bias, showing that you would intentionally close your mind to that which doesn't fit the culture into which you've been indoctrinated.

Anyone could just as easily adopt a moniker such as 'I Don't Believe You', create a newspage called 'Nothing is Real News', and invent the slogan:

'Here at NRN, we place the dubious claims of professional skeptics under a critical lens.'

There would follow pages and pages and hundreds of comments picking apart the methods of self-declared skeptics.

edrich46 said...

That reported "F----" outburst from I Doubt it is oddly juvenile, and hypocritical in light of what she said on the same page about being civil. She's alienating readers and dragging her own work down.

Unknown said...

There a few genuine scientists that have already accepted the fact Sasquatch indeed exists...Having the absolute privelege to personaly meet and research alongside Dr John Bindernagel(author of discovery of Sasquatch, rainbow books)..and viewing his carefully documented evidence..along with the many eyewitness accounts. Ive accepted the reality of its existance based on the evidence we already have.. I think we should let the study be reviewed before we are so quick to dismiss it.. and instead let this be the platform that unites the scientific community so that serious studies and discussions can take place based on all the evidence we have.Im confident that mainstream science is about to have its proverbial "EYES" opened and with this DNA study,it will be very difficult to dismiss as legend or hoax..

Zen Faulkes said...

Robert Lindsay: Thank you for the corrections and additional information.

P.S.-- While part of me hopes that reviewers are extremely critical and prepared to reject the paper, another part of me hopes that this research is bulletproof.

But for many reasons, I would not place my bet on this research being strong enough to convince the scientific community at large.

thomas said...

Skepticism is not debunking. Keep in mind the historical fact that innumerable bogus papers have passed peer review, and some that have been rejected are now seen as breakthroughs. The a priori exclusion of certain topics (Sasquatch, chupacabra, not to mention silently flying triangles, all of which have a wealth of human testimony to bear them up) is not in keeping with authentic scientific methodology, in my opinion. Furthermore, the ad hominem argument against the researcher is fallacious; the value of Dr. Ketchum's paper is not in her person but in her recorded data and her analysis thereof. I look forward to the further development of this and other studies of creatures that are "forbidden" to exist, not just excluded as topics of scientific research.